The purpose of this article is to share some of my experience with sorting out my eating habits over the last few years. These are the first steps that I took in order to begin my transition towards a healthier lifestyle.
I’ve no formal training in diet or nutrition and have always found it very useful to consult with experts in all fields. A few sessions with a good sports nutritionist are very valuable and I would recommend this to any athlete seeking to improve their performance, recovery or body composition. The ideal consultant will be an athlete themselves and have experience working with others in your sport.
I think it is important to understand our motivation in making the food choices that we do and, therefore, I’d like to share a few points on my relationship with food over the years.
Food as a Signal – Thinking back over the years, the times when I have been making the poorest food selections have been the times when I was under the greatest levels of stress. Stress can come from a variety of sources; training, relationships, children, work, finances, partner alignment with life goals and others. When these sources of stress have been reduced, my food choices have improved.
In this sense, my poor eating habits were merely a symptom of a wider issue in my life that I was failing to address.
Food as Nourishment – Food is essential for our survival, period. In the past, there have been times where I felt a certain sense of guilt at every meal. It was almost like food had become an enemy and was preventing me from achieving my ideal self. This is a very dangerous situation because it sets up a negative cycle.
When we view food as a source of strength, it is far easier to establish a virtuous cycle where our strong nutrition choices move us towards our ideal self. By acknowledging my flawed view of food, it became easier to see food for what it really is… a source of energy and pleasure.
Food as Self – I have also had periods of my life where I believed that I was a “good” person when I ate well and a “bad” person when I made poor food choices. Over time, I have realized that I am the same person regardless of my food choices. I think this is an important point to realize, particularly in conjunction with why we like certain types of food (see below).
In order to gain power over food, I believe, that it is best to avoid defining ourselves by the food choices that we make. Once a choice is made, it is gone. Regardless of its nature, all we can do is focus on the next choice. Worrying about the past is a waste of time.
By the way, have you ever wondered why you like fatty or sugary foods? It’s because they taste good and make us feel good. It’s not because we are losers!
I think it is important for people to take total responsibility for their food choices. While it may be interesting to know each of our personal life struggles, there is only one person who decides what we eat. With a few medical exceptions, our body composition is completely dictated by a huge number of tiny decisions that we make on a daily basis. In order to change ourselves, we need to take responsibility for ourselves.
- What we look like today…
- Is based on decisions that we have made in the past.
- What we will look like tomorrow…
- Is based on decisions that we start making right now.
It is a classic conflict between short-term pleasure and long-term gain. When you see an elite athlete standing before you, you are looking at the result of tens of thousands of little decisions that they have made over many years.
What’s is it Worth?
Before getting into the techniques that I have used, you should ask yourself what you are willing to commit and how important improvement is to you. Why? Because there are no short-cuts and good nutrition is a lifestyle decision.
That may sound intimidating, but I find it somewhat relaxing knowing that I get a fresh start every morning. That makes it easier for me to deal with set-backs (and we all have set backs).
Like any endeavour, our results are completely dictated by our commitment and dedication.
I believe that the first step is gaining information about your current position. Start by keeping a food log for an entire week. When I have my athletes do this, I tell them just to record “what” they are eating. I tell them that I don’t care how much they are eating, I want an honest assessment of their current eating habits.
When you are keeping your log, BE HONEST. Anyone can “eat right” for seven days. There is no point in fooling yourself and your advisers. I have had people present me with food logs that are completely inconsistent with their appearance. In order to make changes, you need to have an honest assessment of where you are.
Armed with the log, you are now in a great position to visit that sports nutritionist. By combining that log with your training diary, your professional advisor will be able to give you some excellent advice on how to make progress.
Or you can read on….
Energy Dense versus Nutrient Dense Foods
What do I mean by “energy dense foods”? Energy dense foods are those that are high in calories relative to their size or volume. Some examples: cheese, whole milk, butter, french fries, burgers, sweets, energy bars, and soft drinks. These types of food can put a lot of calories into you at times when you don’t need them.
There is a time and place for many energy dense foods. However, when you are trying to lose weight, you need to know what you are eating. In general, athletes that are seeking to improve their body composition should limit their intake of energy dense foods.
Nutrient dense foods are foods such as: fruits, vegetables, fish and lean cuts of meat.
Now… get yourself a highlighter pen and mark the energy dense foods on your log.
Starting To Change
The next step is to swap half of your energy dense choices for nutrient dense choices. Why only half? Several reasons:
- We all have limited willpower and we should apply it sparingly. The people in your life that appear to have tons of willpower are just the same as you. However, they have learned to apply their limited willpower to gradually mold themselves closer and closer to their ideal self.
- Radical change does not work. We are trying to change habits that have been formed over years and, quite often, generations. This is some powerful programming that needs to be adjusted.
- Cold turkey is not required for results. While “cold turkey” works for some people, they often return to their old eating habits once they have shed their poundage.
- Our ultimate goal is to develop a healthy, long-term lifestyle that brings out your ideal self. We want to make this long term change in a manner that maintains your quality of life.
Gordo, you make it sounds so easy. Write a log, swap half my food and PRESTO, I’ll be transformed into my perfect self. I don’t believe you!
Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. What we are talking about is a long-term transformation. It could take up to six months before you notice a major transformation (although your pals will notice before that). Why is that? It is because our bodies change very slowly. Nature is slow and you will need to have patience. However, if you make the changes then the results will come. If you don’t believe me then drop me an e-mail and I will put you in touch with some of my athletes that have followed this advice.
Tips and Suggestions
Some “tricks” that work for myself and others.
House Cleaning – Get yourself a box and clean out all the foods that are inconsistent with achieving your ideal self. I’ve always found that it is much easier for me to make excellent food choices when they are all around me. I like to keep plenty of fresh fruit at my office, home, car and training sites. This makes it a lot easier for me to stick with my plan.
Treats – Think about some of your favourite foods. During or after your long sessions, treat yourself to a moderate amount of these foods. I like to focus on eating these foods slowly and consuming nutrient dense foods alongside them (this helps me moderate my intake).
Acceptance – Constantly remind yourself that your goal is to bring out your ideal self. Visualise the person within that you are helping to strengthen and bring forward. This philosophy has been very useful to me for making positive choices in all aspects of my life. It changes my mindset from “denying a candy bar” to “feeding my ideal self an apple”.
Serving – Serve your meals in the kitchen rather than having large plates of food on the table. If there is food in front of me then I will continue to eat well past when I am hungry (invite me over to dinner to see this in action!). When I have been trying to improve my body composition…
- I serve in the kitchen;
- I use smaller plates and bowls;
- I tell myself that I can eat as much as I want, but that I have to wait 5-10 minutes between servings;
- I make a conscious decision to eat slightly slower than usual; and
- I increase my intake of foods that are high in fibre but relatively low in calories (apples are a favourite of mine).
Patterns and Habits – Each of us has our own particular patterns and habits that either result in poor food selections or lead us towards poor choices. Pay attention to when and why you are engaging in self-sabotage. Show yourself some compassion and see if you can understand the motivation behind the feelings or situations that lead you down familiar paths.
For example, my morning “bowl” of cereal has been a long-time habit of mine. I love loading up on food in the morning. Once I noticed the pattern, I made a substitution of a huge bowl of fruit salad. I was just as full and able to shave a little out of my energy intake. It doesn’t take many changes to start heading in your desired direction and once you are heading the right way, it gets easier.
Perhaps, you have a habit of “pizza and beers” a few times each week. By changing that pattern to “stir fry at your place” you might be able to achieve better food choices and see your pals at the same time. When I lived in Hong Kong, my friends got a lot of free meals at my place!
Another example is fizzy drinks. I had a friend in university who achieved significant results from switching from Coca-Cola to Club Soda. Sometimes a simple change is all it takes.
Scales – Personally, I think that scales are often counterproductive for athletes trying to improve their body composition. Why is that?
- Scales encourage a short term focus while nutrition is a long-term strategy.
- Scales give artificial highs and lows. Wake up down two pounds lighter and you are happy all day. Find out that you are up three pounds and the world better watch out!
- Scales give inaccurate feedback. What we weigh says very little about our ability as an athlete (and our worth as a person for that matter!). While there are a number of sports where it is beneficial to have a high power to weight ratio, many athletes lose power faster than they lose weight.
- Athletes that have an excessive focus on weight tend to under hydrate and skimp on recovery nutrition. They have a desire to “save” the weight that they just lost. In reality, the fat has been burned and food/water is necessary to replenish glycogen, rebuild muscles and restore hydration levels – all essential in order to be able to train and burn more fat. Proper nutrition is an essential part of this virtuous circle.
- Finally, and most important of all, it’s not about how much you weigh. It is about how you look, how you feel, how you recover and how you perform. A scale tells you nothing about these (although your mind might trick you into thinking that it does!).
Spend some time considering your relationship with your scale. It is affirming your ideal self, or helping the part of your mind that beats you up? You may be better off pitching it in your housecleaning box.
Go Natural – Probably the easiest thing to remember is to maximize your intake of fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, fish and lean cuts of meat. Focus on achieving a balanced, natural diet and you are well on your way to good health.
Cooking – Many athletes have limited time in their lives. I like to say that we all have the same amount of time, the only difference is how we use it. In order to save time, I always make extra when I cook “healthy” that way I have leftovers for the days when I am busy.
Fat – In the past, I have gone on very low fat diets. This method of eating can involve a lot of stress as there is a high degree of “background hunger” associated with avoiding fats. I have found that a more moderate approach to fats works for me. These days, I am including small amounts of “good” fat in my diet. My sources of dietary fat come from small amounts of olive oil, nuts, and avocados as well as substantial amounts of lean meat and fish.
Starches – When I am choosing sources of rice, pasta, breads and other foods with a large amount of starch, I choose foods that have been subject to minimal processing. As a result, I avoid boxed cereals, white breads, white pasta and white rice. I favour wholegrain breads, unsweetened grain based cereals, whole wheat pasta and other grains that have been subject to minimal processing. I tend to consume the majority of my starchy foods after training and look to combine them with nutrient dense foods.
Listen to your Body – I believe that our bodies will tell us what they need. The secret is learning to interpret the signals that we receive. In the past, I have been prone to misinterpret these signals. The classic one is when we feel hungry. Somehow my mind might convince me that I need a box of Raisin Bran (maybe your mind likes bacon cheeseburgers). When I started giving myself balanced nutrition, I discovered that I felt better and many of my cravings went away. They still appear from time to time but I can better deal with them through treats and the other strategies above.
By putting the above tips into action, I was able to realize that I didn’t really “need” all the poor food choices that I thought would make me happy. By caring for my ideal self, I found it became easier and easier for me to make smart choices that support my long-term goals.
You can do it! There are many, many people that have been in exactly the same position as you. They were full of self-pity, self-hate, despair and fear. Despite their doubts, they decided that enough was enough and started a journey towards their ideal self.
Make a decision today and take it hour by hour. There will be hurdles to overcome but the rewards are worth the dedication required. Always remember that you get a fresh start every morning and can take it one meal at a time.
Show compassion to yourself, make gradual changes and build the habits that strengthen your ideal self. Soon you will see that it was there all the time.